Articles - Deb > New Thought and the Anglican Tradition


New Thought and the Anglican Tradition

by Deb Whitehouse

Presented to SSMR July 24, 2003

There are two ways to approach the study of any academic subject: from the outside looking in, or from the inside looking out. The outside-in approach is perhaps the commoner because it offers presumed objectivity, but the inside-out approach offers an intimate familiarity that is difficult for the outsider to obtain. Particularly where religious beliefs are concerned, insiders have dedicated themselves to mastering the nuances of doctrine and steeped themselves in liturgy, ceremonial, or whatever offers itself as an attraction to the devotee.

I am approaching both New Thought and the Anglican tradition as an insider: I was brought up from infancy as an Episcopalian (the American branch of the Anglican communion) and remained a faithful communicant until I lapsed in my late twenties. As a child, I read Wee Wisdom, but I had no idea that it was a part of New Thought; indeed, I had not heard of New Thought until the fateful day in the mid-Seventies when I discovered books by Catherine Ponder and Emmet Fox on the same shelf at the local library. I was ecstatic! To me, this was discovering the essence, the neglected heart of the beliefs I had long held. However, the denomination from which I had learned those beliefs had excommunicated me for marrying the man I loved (my late first husband, who was divorced and had not applied for annulment because of diocesan politics), then reinstated both of us a year later because we had continued to attend church faithfully. Over the next few years, I continued to ponder the question of who determines whether or not a marriage is valid and how anyone other than God or the two parties involved is in a position to determine that. Eventually, I left the Episcopal church, at first by my physical absence, then by my formal decision that I could no longer in good conscience belong to any organization that restricted my freedom in matters of belief. Gradually, I became more and more a New Thoughter as I learned more and more about the New Thought movement, especially after my relationship with and eventual marriage to one of the leading internationally known New Thought scholars steeped me in the history and practices of the movement. Still, I never have joined any New Thought denomination, but remain independent.

During those transitional years, with Anglican teachings fresh in my mind, I had occasion to compare them with New Thought teachings. I had gone from a Low Church childhood to a High Church adolescence and adulthood with all the zeal of a convert. High Church (sometimes referred to as Anglo-Catholic) places high importance on bishops and sacraments; Low Church does not. (There are, of course, numerous shadings in between, with the majority of Anglicans falling somewhere between the two extremes). The Anglican tradition is rather like New Thought in having so many variations in beliefs and practices. I was drawn to a more or less centrist, generic version of New Thought, much as is now outlined in the INTA Declaration of Principles; and I found nothing that in any way conflicted with what I believed about the goodness of God, the abundance of the universe, the spiritual teachings of the Bible, or the example set by Jesus for us to emulate. I believe that New Thought and the Anglican tradition are perfectly compatible as long as one is using appropriately minimalist definitions of both and seeking, not their denominational merger, but simply New Thought leaven for the Anglican branch of the Church catholic. It is perfectly possible for one to be a New Thought Episcopalian or Anglican and remain intellectually honest and spiritually congruent. To illustrate this, I will give brief sketches of the history of the New Thought movement and of the Anglicans, then examine the minimalist beliefs of both, showing some particular commonalities.

In his book, The Many Faces of Faith: A Guide to World Religions and Christian Traditions, Episcopal priest Richard Losch states,

Anglicanism can be considered the third, most recently developed, and smallest branch of the "Catholic church," the other two branches being Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Like them, the Anglican church can trace its unbroken episcopate and traditional catholic faith directly back to the first-century apostolic church. (page 102)

It is important to understand that Henry VIII did not found the Church of England; whatever his moral shortcomings, he was respected as a theologian and given the title Defender of the Faith by the Pope. He broke politically with the Pope over a number of issues in addition to his famous marriage annulment, and such political breaks were not at all unprecedented. During the reign of his daughter, Mary, papal rule was restored, and it was only under Elizabeth I that Rome cut itself off from England, not the other way around. During all this time, the same bishops, sacraments, buildings, and beliefs remained in place; the only changes were the use of English instead of Latin for the services and the publication of the first Book of Common Prayer, neither of which was essential to the validity of bishops’ ordinations or sacraments. In 1559 Elizabeth took the title of Head of the Church in England and revised the new Prayer Book to remove some Protestant additions. But it was not until 1570 that the Pope excommunicated her. This confirmed the breach between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England.

According to Losch, "The Anglican communion is the worldwide brotherhood of all the churches in communion with the Church of England—those bodies, in other words, whose theology and liturgy are in essential agreement with that church, and which are for the most part descendants of it" (page 110). Losch goes on to explain that for fear of being destroyed (as had happened to the Roman Empire) or inhibited by size, (as had happened to the Roman Catholic church),

the policy evolved that governs the Anglican communion today: each country or region would have its own autonomous church . . . free to control its own doctrine and practice along the same democratic lines that are followed in the Church of England. Each is recognized by the body of all the rest as a member of the Anglican communion as long as it remains within certain basic traditional doctrinal parameters. . . . without real legal authority, "the binding force in the Anglican communion is almost mystical. It is nothing more than an understood mutual loyalty to Anglican traditions, yet its power to cement the communion together is prodigious. To Anglicans this is proof of the operation of the Holy Spirit in the church. (page 111)

There was "no attempt to establish a specific body of unified theology and liturgy", for the Anglicans did not wish to dispute with other denominations that claimed to be the only true church. "They believed that there is some truth to be found in all sincere attempts to fathom the Absolute Truth, and that the duty of Christians is to trust the Holy Spirit to help them discern it" (page 112). Anglicans see themselves as the via media (middle road), retaining the best of the Roman heritage yet enriching it with "the best of Protestant thought and custom". They look to the Bible, human reason, and tradition as mutually corrective sources of truth. Anglican liturgy, and particularly Anglican church music, at its best is arguably the finest in the world. Services range from a simple non-musical early morning Communion service to a peaceful Evensong to a solemn high Eucharist with incense, bells, and chanting. Those of us who are accustomed to the beauty of such rites sorely miss them in New Thought!

New Thought’s history is much shorter, but equally fraught with complications. Losch’s book includes a chapter on Christian Science, which he confounds with New Thought, so he is not a reliable source on the subject. We are here considering New Thought as a philosophico-religious movement, a way of life, rather than as a sociological phenomenon. Jesus, a Jew, did not seek to found a new religion; the Christian church was arguably the church founded by the apostles Jesus chose to continue his work and by Paul, after the majority of Jews refused to accept it. Similarly, Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, the father of New Thought, made no attempt to found a religion; and identified only one person whom he trusted who was willing to continue the healing work he had begun, modeled on the healing methods of Jesus. Living in mid-nineteenth-century New England, Quimby justifiably distrusted doctors and clergymen, for in the Age of Heroic Medicine, of calomel and leaches, doctors killed as many as they cured; and many clergy literally frightened their congregants to death with tales of hellfire and God’s sending illness as a punishment. Having studied and successfully practiced mesmerism, the precursor of clinical hypnosis, Quimby soon realized that the cures he was helping to bring about were in reality attributable to "mind acting [directly] upon mind", not to the humbuggery that went with mesmerism. He began to study the Bible on his own in order to refute the beliefs that he saw were harming his patients. Reading his writings makes it clear that he grew spiritually as he abandoned mesmerism. Altered states of consciousness and the existence of the other-than-conscious mind were as unknown in Quimby’s day as they were in Biblical times, and Quimby, with very limited education, struggled to express himself. Lacking a word to describe the other-than-conscious mind, the workings of which he had become aware, he referred to it as "spiritual matter". His work was God-centered mental healing, and his favorite name for God was Wisdom.

Quimby died relatively young of overwork; he healed some twelve thousand patients in his lifetime. Unfortunately, only two patients showed an interest in continuing Quimby’s work: Warren Felt Evans, who wrote about what eventually became known as New Thought and practiced it to some extent; and Mary Baker Eddy, whom Quimby did not trust. He refused to allow her to teach his methods during his lifetime. She later began teaching his methods on her own and clearly identified them as his, but gradually, she dropped her identification of their source and claimed sole discovery of what she now adapted and called Christian Science, a term Quimby had used casually once or twice. Confounded as the two movements are, much criticism of New Thought actually belongs at the doorstep of Christian Science. Be that as it may, New Thought (which acquired that name around 1895) began with Quimby’s attempt to return to the alignment of human minds with the Mind of God, as did Jesus, for purposes of healing. The rest of Christendom had gradually abandoned the healing practices that the Apostles were using, so much so that the Sacrament of Unction for the sick referred to in the Epistle General of James had become Extreme Unction for the dying; and illness was seen as punishment or at least correction or learning. Christianity’s God was too often seen as less compassionate than His creatures, and certainly not as a loving Father within.

Somehow, Eddy dissidents and the Dresser family managed to keep Quimby’s ideas alive. Emma Curtis Hopkins, at one time editor of the Christian Science Journal, is credited with the founding of New Thought as a movement by her opening of a school and ordaining ministers. However, Malinda Cramer, co-founder with the Brooks sisters of Divine Science, was simultaneously at work on the West coast, and it is uncertain just what influences were at work on her. She was healed of a longstanding ailment before Hopkins had left Eddy. Charles and Myrtle Fillmore co-founded Unity after Myrtle healed herself of a longstanding illness, inspired by a lecture given by an emissary of Hopkins who had been trained in what was known as the Old Theology, essentially the teachings of Quimby. Ernest Holmes, founder of Religious Science/Science of Mind, had studied Christian Science and also studied briefly with Hopkins late in her life.

Early New Thoughters were not trying to establish denominations in competition with existing churches; like Jesus, Luther, or even Henry VIII, they simply sought to correct or restore what they considered to be off course or lacking. Gail Thain Parker, in Mind Cure in New England, states:

A convert might therefore join a small study group formed by a local leader or experiment alone with mental healing while still clinging to the Methodist or Episcopal Church. In addition, after 1900 he had some opportunity to play politics in international alliances of the like-minded. But it was always assumed that his most meaningful spiritual exercises went on in the privacy of his own home with the guidance of a number of well-chosen books. (page 9)

It was not long before people realized that the power of God-aligned thinking could heal pocketbooks and relationships as well as bodies. By the early twentieth century, New Thought had become identified with prosperity in the broadest sense, and it became widely popular. Authors such as Ralph Waldo Trine, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and Orison Swett Marden wrote best sellers. Realizing that the church had been neglecting a portion of its teaching, in 1905, Episcopal priest Elwood Worcester at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Boston joined with another priest and a physician to write a book, Religion and Medicine, which described the use of both spiritual and physical means of healing. The press dubbed this effort the Emmanuel Movement, and it was clearly modeled on New Thought. Methodist minister Leslie Weatherhead, in his book Psychology, Religion, and Healing, describes a similar movement in England in the same year: The Guild of Health, founded by three Anglican priests "to arouse the whole Church . . . to a fresh recognition of the place of health of mind and body in the Christian message"; this was followed in 1915 by the Guild of St. Raphael, which was a specifically Anglican society with a similar aim. Other organizations followed, and by the mid-Fifties, both Weatherhead and Reformed Church in America minister Norman Vincent Peale had founded psychological clinics in connection with their respective churches. It is interesting to note that the Anglicans were the first to follow the New Thought lead. It is also interesting to note that Quimby healed patients of a wide variety of ailments both physical and psychological, and on several occasions he assisted surgeons by using hypnosis instead of anaesthetics. Today it is estimated that over ninety percent of all illness is psychogenic, meaning that although it is a very real, physical illness, its cause is in the mind. For example, our immune systems are enormously affected by our mental states and beliefs. Conversely, individuals have demonstrated repeatedly under laboratory conditions their ability to alter their white blood cell count or the temperature of their hands, using only the power of their thoughts.

Today, New Thought still has three main denominations, each of which has divided, as well as many independent churches and individuals, many of whom also belong to other Christian denominations or other religions. Some attend services at New Thought churches in addition to their own. At one time that I know of, an Episcopal church in southern California was a group member of INTA, and there may have been others. Episcopal priest Leo Booth has been a frequent speaker at New Thought events. Many mainstream clergy subscribe to New Thought publications, especially Unity’s Daily Word.

New Thought does have denominations that could be considered religions. But what is New Thought other than a religion? Mainly, it is a spirituality, which is the raw material from which one forms one’s religion. It concerns our relationship to God as "the Father within", as Jesus put it. My husband, Alan Anderson, and I like to define it as "the practice of the Presence of God for practical purposes" or "habitual God-aligned mental self-discipline". It is the art of shepherding one’s thoughts in the direction one prefers, quietly, so that one can be listening for God’s guidance as one goes through life. It can therefore harmonize with any other set of beliefs that include a good God (by whatever name and however conceived of) and an abundant universe rather than a zero-sum game in which for someone to win, someone else must lose. Although New Thought does not require that one swear allegiance to any creed, without the notions of a good God and an abundant universe, there would be no point to following New Thought principles. These teachings are found in the Bible, especially in the teachings of Jesus, although most New Thoughters probably do not accept some of the teachings about Jesus, particularly the doctrines of vicarious atonement and of God the Son unique in kind, the Second Person of the Trinity. There is, however, nothing in New Thought that would prevent someone who holds to such doctrines from embracing and practicing New Thought principles. The central New Thought principle is often expressed, "Thoughts held in mind produce after their kind", which echoes the words of Jesus, "If thou canst believe, all things are possible" (Mk 9:23) and "As thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee" (Mt 8:13). Jesus as a good Jew would have grown up with the words of Proverbs 23:7, "As [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he". Jesus repeatedly told those he cured that their faith, that is, their habitual thoughts, had made them whole. The other teaching central to New Thought, no matter how expressed, is the importance of a close and loving relationship with God immanent and transcendent: "My Father greater than all" (John 10:29); "I and my Father are one" (John 10:30); and it is God’s power, not ours, that brings about healing: "The Father that dwellest in me, he doeth the works" (John 14:10); and perhaps most important, "He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also, and greater works" (John 14:12).

New Thought is sometimes referred to as primitive Christianity, an attempt to go back to the original teachings of Jesus rather than those added by later generations of churchmen. As such, it is particularly compatible with the Anglican tradition, which may hold some beliefs or practices by tradition, but as we have seen, does not insist on them as necessary for salvation. For their own member churches, Anglicans insist on the apostolic succession, the sacraments of baptism and holy communion, and the traditional creeds. Infant baptism is acceptable to them because, as Losch puts it, "the grace of salvation cannot be earned—it is a free gift of God freely given and is in no way dependent upon the intention or righteousness of the recipient" (page 116). Anglicans believe that "the glorified Christ is objectively present in the Blessed Sacrament", and the Eucharist is "the central act of Anglican worship". None of this is in any way a barrier to the practice of New Thought principles, originating as they do with the Bible (although not limited to the Bible, for God has other ways of communicating with God’s creatures).

Horatio Dresser, son of two Quimby patients, and New Thought’s first historian, emphasized that New Thought was a spiritual science more than a mental science, and he was critical of some of the New Thought writers whom he believed put undue emphasis on the mental and the secular. Other critics such as Richard Huber noticed the gradual loss of the character ethic from much of New Thought literature and decried its absence. Such trends would not be acceptable to Anglicans, just as they are not acceptable to many New Thoughters. There are extremes in both New Thought and the Anglican tradition that would not be acceptable to the mainstream in either.

The Anglican tradition has long tolerated and even encouraged mysticism, in the sense of direct individual experience of God (one good illustration of this is Dean William Inge’s book, Personal Idealism and Mysticism, and New Thought’s underlying metaphysics is generally conceded to be idealism). Some churches find this threatening to their authority. New Thought, with its emphasis on the freedom of the individual and the importance of the individual’s relationship with God, is highly friendly toward mysticism.

Anglicans have been of some direct influence on New Thought as well. Charles Fillmore’s mother was an Episcopalian. Popular English speaker Archdeacon Basil Wilberforce influenced popular New Thought writer Ralph Waldo Trine, who quoted Wilberforce in The Man Who Knew: "The secret of optimism is the mental effort to abide in conscious oneness with the Supreme Power, the Infinite Immanent Mind evolving a perfect purpose . . . " Unfortunately, Wilberforce, like all too many New Thoughters, lapsed into pantheism at times; and like those New Thoughters, defined pantheism as only one of its forms, declaring himself to be free of pantheism because he did not embrace that form of it. Wilberforce was also influenced by New Thought in the form of Thomas Troward, whose Doré lectures Wilberforce cites in his book, Power With God.

More recently in New Thought, there has been an effort to update its idealistic metaphysics to harmonize with contemporary science and philosophy, specifically, to introduce process thought, which employs a cleaned-up form of idealism known as panexperientialism (the notion that the basic building blocks of the universe are experiences, which are mental/spiritual in nature). Here, too, process thought has been acceptable to many Anglicans; its two most important proponents, philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, were sons of Anglican clergymen. Anglican theologian Norman Pittenger, who taught for many years at General Theological Seminary in New York as well as at Cambridge University, was a strong supporter of process thought.

In conclusion, there is much underlying compatibility between the Anglican outlook and basic New Thought principles. New Thought has been and continues to be a wholesome influence on Anglicans, based as it largely is on the teachings of Jesus.